Last year, I wrote my version of the Christmas Story (I’ve pasted it at the bottom of this post if you’re curious). I wrote the story as a way of channelling the nausea generated in me by the gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild-no-crying-he-makes representation of the story.
For me, (and this is – a la Alain de Botton – setting aside the truth or otherwise of Christian claims about Jesus) the Christmas story, the idea of God becoming a human being of flesh and blood, is (or at least, should be) about as far from sweet and sentimental as you can get. Human birth is such an intense combination of joy and fear, pleasure and pain, chaos and beauty, all watched over by the shadow of death and the dazzling intensity of new life. To airbrush all this out of the story seems criminal to me.
Which brings me to Easter – a stranger beast by far. A story of torture and execution is much harder to sentimentalise, let’s be honest. It doesn’t matter how many coats of compound chocolate you put on a crown of thorns, it is still going to be tricky to keep a happy smile on your face while you choke it down. We try though, don’t we? In fact, the way our culture does Easter sometimes feels to me like a bizarre kind of wake, where the body of the deceased, instead of being on a table in the middle of the room, is lying in a dark corner, while everyone tries their best to pretend it isn’t even there.
I was listening to a feminist theologian the other day, who helped me make sense of this strange phenomenon, by introducing me to the term ‘the Abject’ (as it is used in the work of the feminist psychoanalyst and writer, Julia Kristeva). The same theologian also suggested that the perfect Jesus for our times would be an overweight middle-aged woman, but I’ll save that discussion for another post.
At the risk of gross oversimplification, Kristeva’s use of the term ‘the abject, refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. The primary example for what causes such a reaction is the corpse (which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality); however, other items can elicit the same reaction: the open wound, shit, sewage, even the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk.’ (the quote is from here)
When I came across this quote the other day, it struck me immediately that, with the exception of the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk, all these ‘items’ are present in a crucifixion. The corpse that was taken down from the cross, would not only have featured the open wounds we are familiar with from the Easter narrative, but the legs would, without doubt, have been covered in a crust of drying shit and piss. He was up there for a long time remember, and my understanding is that crucifixions did not involve toilet breaks.
This, to my mind, is why Easter is such a weird one. God’s embrace of the abject is not an easy thing to make sense of, let alone ‘celebrate’. After all, the church itself has spent much of the last two millennia ignoring the implications of Good Friday, so you can’t blame a post-christian culture for finding it tricky to know what to do with it.
Anyway, now you know why I am wishing you a shitty Easter. Forgive me that I don’t have a chocolate egg as a reward for reading the above (it was one of my more convoluted efforts, I know), but you can have a little story instead (pasted below, as promised)
A Shepherd’s Story
If I’d been alone, I would have thought it was a dream. It was the stuff of dreams. Light so intense it turned night to day; a heavenly choir; an angel in the air above us, telling us that the Messiah, the promised one, the Holy one of God, had been born… in a shed just up the road.
But when I looked around, I saw the joy and terror I was feeling in the faces of all the others, and I knew it wasn’t a dream, or if it was, it was one we’d had together.
And without a word, we started walking, as if in a trance, in the direction of Bethlehem. The dogs started running back and forth from us to the sheep, from the sheep to us, confused, not knowing what to do, where they were meant to be. In the end, half of them stayed with the flock (which had managed to sleep through the whole thing) and half of them came with us.
Afterwards, I did remember that the angel had mentioned a manger, but that detail was kind of lost, at the time, in the whole Angelic, Glory of the Lord, Heavenly Choir thing, and so I imagine we all thought the same thing… that we were on our way to the Synagogue or the Rabbi’s house or something. So much so that had it not been such a still night, and if the baby hadn’t cried out exactly at the moment we passed the doors of the stable, we probably would have walked on by…
…Now, I’d only been a shepherd for a year or so back then, but I’d seen my fair share of lambs being born, and it can be a messy business. But it didn’t prepare me for what we saw when we walked in. Even in the dull light thrown by the one lonely flickering candle you could see the straw on the ground (you couldn’t really call it a floor) was matted with blood and vomit and shit. The stench, animal and human, was overpowering. In the darkest corner there was a donkey, maybe two, and a couple of cows, eyes rolling, stamping and snorting in distress (at what they’d just witnessed, I guess). In another corner, the father was sitting, bloodstained hands covering his face, sobbing.
In the centre of the stable, slumped over the feed trough, was the mother, almost a child herself, her face white with shock and blood loss. And in the trough itself, wrapped in muddy scraps of cloth, a sleeping baby.
We just stood there, with no clue what to do or where to look. This was not the scene that any of us had expected. Who knows how long we would have just stood there, paralysed, if Daniel’s dog hadn’t made a dash for the placenta, and then headed out the door with it in his mouth. Daniel set off after him, the rest of the dogs following, barking hysterically. And well, that certainly broke the spell.
The baby started to cry – that newborn cry, just like a baby goat. The girl, the mother, placed her hand on the baby’s belly and lifted her face… and I saw it there, beneath the utter exhaustion and the dirty tracks of tears… that look, the look I’d seen on the faces of my friends, in the field. The same mix of joy and terror…
There must have been a trace of it still on our faces as well, because all of a sudden I could see that she saw it too… that she knew that we knew… that we had come to see him. In a whisper, she said, ‘Come’.
I can’t explain it, but as I looked down at that tiny, bleating creature, his face still covered with the sticky white traces of the womb, I was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense of joy, and hope. There was really nothing about him, but…
Anyway, we got them some food, and helped tidy up the place a little, as much as we could. I even found some clean straw for Mary – that was the girl’s name – to clean the baby off a bit.
I watched her do it… The stupid thing is that what stayed with me was, and don’t laugh, but it was his foreskin. It was the first time I’d ever seen one close up. The tiny wrinkled foreskin of the chosen one of God…
…We didn’t see them again. We don’t come into town much, and the next time we did they’d gone. Up north, apparently. I guess they were just down for the Census. I actually did think I’d heard an accent…